Book Review of:
Patronage or Partnership:
Local Capacity Building
in Humanitarian Crises
Edited by Ian Smillie
Bloomfield: Kumarian Press, 2001
Reviewed by Mariko Oshiro
Patronage or Partnership: Local Capacity Building in Humanitarian Crises is testimony to the shortsightedness and externality that pervade the field of international humanitarian aid. It questions the effectiveness of international aid efforts that provide immediate and life-saving relief but neglect the longer-term responsibility of empowering local agencies to participate in their own recovery and development processes. Through six case studies on countries at varying stages of emergency and reconstruction, it analyzes the successes and failures of local capacity building efforts in Bosnia, Haiti, Guatemala, Mozambique, Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone.
The book is rich in constructive criticism of past humanitarian assistance efforts, but does not intend to preach absolute solutions for successful capacity building. Rather, it seeks to foster awareness and provoke thoughtfulness on the conceptual, operational, political and motivational issues of capacity building in humanitarian crises.
Each of the six case studies supplies insight into capacity building efforts of different scopes and objectives, at various levels and sectors of society. Each author employs his or her extensive fieldwork in each respective country to yield local perspectives, and precedes each discussion of capacity building with a historical overview and summary of the conflict and current situation. This format, combined with Smillie’s comprehensive introduction and conclusion, encourages critical thinking on the general topic of humanitarianism. Both the novice and experienced reader in the field of disaster management and humanitarian aid can apply the case examples to consider such questions as: Is the end result more important than the process? Can outsiders design local capacity-building projects? How do politics, time and budgetary constraints affect capacity-building projects? What is the relationship between civil society and emergency relief efforts? Who should bear responsibility for capacity building?
Smillie asserts that while capacity building is situational and can only be defined by the context under which it must occur, all endeavors ought to share: a clearly defined purpose, or the identification of measurable outcomes of efforts at capacity building; a clear target, or the recognition of the specific sectoral level at which capacity building will occur; and the understanding of the local situation and the context in which the change is expected to take place via close cooperation with those affected. He ends the book by pulling the case studies into an inclusive discussion of the conceptual, operational, political and motivational challenges that face humanitarian organizations. It is here that he delves into the significance of civil society, the constraints of timing and funding, the political issues of neutrality and impartiality, and the question of who should commit to local capacity building.
Read for recreation or for study, the book ingrains within the mind of any reader the complexity of the field of humanitarian aid. Smillie’s recurring message – that capacity building is much easier said than done – is a reflection of the sobering reality that many agencies are simply unable or unwilling to engage in local capacity building. However, his effort to raise awareness of the importance of forming meaningful partnerships with local organizations offers hope that the future of humanitarian aid will see the closing of the chasm that exists between short-term relief missions and longer-term efforts of reconstruction.
Summaries of the case studies:
Reconstructing Bosnia, Constructing Civil Society: Disjuncture and Convergence examines the efforts of international agencies to partner with local organizations in the formation of an NGO foundation to reconstruct Bosnian civil society following the Dayton Peace Accords and at the start of the 21st Century. It includes a section that closely follows CARE’s efforts to establish operations, and illustrates the financial and political constraints of capacity building at the donor level.
Alternative Food Aid Strategies and Local Capacity Building in Haiti champions the success of Centre canadien d’etude et de la cooperation internationale (CECI) in encouraging local production for food security following the 1991military coup d’etat. By working directly with the private sector and peasant associations to reinforce traditional production and marketing circuits, CECI gave Haitians the primary role in food security and the tools to sustain it.
Rebuilding Local Capacities in Mozambique: The National Health System and Civil Society addresses whether local health services can strengthen civil society and legitimatize a state’s local presence among an extremely disengaged civil society. It emphasizes the importance of understanding the historical, social and political contexts of the situation under which capacity building will occur, and the significance of traditional culture in emergency situations.
Means without End: Humanitarian Assistance in Sri Lanka considers the difficulty of providing neutral and impartial assistance during an ongoing conflict within a well developed civil society. It illustrates how efforts to help internally displaced persons in conflict zones are curbed by corruption and skepticism by the Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and touches upon the challenges of implementing capacity building where there is absolutely no existing infrastructure.
Women’s Organizations in Guatemalan Refugee and Returnee Populations addresses the futility of capacity building without understanding the political and social realities of a situation. It follows efforts to promote gender equality among Guatemalans in Mexican refugee camps before repatriation, and the failure to sustain the movement after repatriation. The author warns of the dangers that international agencies impose upon victims when they assume universal values and fail to understand the framework under which they are operating.
Sierra Leone: Peacebuilding in Purgatory is a journal-like personal account of an aid worker who witnesses the patronizing nature of international capacity building efforts. He writes of the disproportionate number of international agencies to local NGOs and criticizes the former for using the latter as “errand boys” to fulfill their own agendas.
Book Review of:
Acts of God:
The Unnatural History of
Natural Disaster in America
By Ted Steinberg
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000
Reviewed by Jeanne Johnston
“We do not see our hand in what happens, so we call certain events melancholy accidents when they are the inevitabilities of our projects.”
— Stanley Cavell
Ted Steinberg is a leading young environmental historian. According to the Oxford General Catalog, Steinberg is known as “one of the most brilliant, articulate, and provocative of the rising generation of environmental historians.”1 He is currently Professor of History and Law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Steinberg has written four books and over fifteen articles. He has a long-standing interest in legal issues and is presently working on plans for a social history of the death penalty in post-World War II America. His book, Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America, was nominated for a 2000 Pulitzer Prize in the general nonfiction category.
Steinberg has a heartfelt conviction that “our culture needs a passionate, critical engagement with the past to encounter the denial and apathy that inform so many aspects of the response to natural disasters in contemporary America.” He affirms that, “This book is openly argumentative” (p. xii). Steinberg utilizes a combination of systematic historical evidence and anecdotal references to substantiate his arguments. The author proceeds in a logical manner, beginning with the late 19th century American religious explanation of calamities of nature as that of God’s will, usually to punish wayward humans. The trend today, with the advent of scientific advancements and secularism, is toward demoralization and an increase in government involvement in what we now call “natural disaster” (p. xxii).
The author scrutinizes a century of losses from weather and seismic extremes and exposes the fallacy that natural disasters are just random events. He states that natural calamity is worsened by the decisions of business leaders and government officials that pave the way for greater losses of life and property, especially among the poor, elderly and minorities. These result from lack of warnings due to budget cuts, downplaying the effects of the disaster in order to support specific interests, or controlling relief efforts.
Act of God offers three issues as its main focus. Firstly, Steinberg explores the “historically contingent nature of these phenomena and the question of human complicity.” Secondly, he examines the questions: “Whose definition of normality rules during the recovery process? Whose vision of society is at stake when nature and culture collide?” (p. xviii) Lastly, he asks, “Why have they [business interests and governmental agencies] chosen to see the calamitous effects of weather or geophysical extremes as being chiefly nature’s fault …?” Steinberg argues that this point of view obscures other options (p. xix).
These three issues correspond to three main disciplines that Steinberg explores: Environmental history (concerned with the interaction between human beings and nature), social history (concerned with questions of power), and cultural history (concerned with issues of meaning and interpretation) (p. xix).
The author highlights several disasters over the course of the book. One of those examples is the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Steinberg recounts the struggle after the 1906 earthquake between those who sought to capitalize on the event for entertainment value and the viewpoint of the California business class. Steinberg’s definition of business class includes leading members of the commercial community, as well as their associates in the worlds of law and journalism who supported them in boosting a city’s economic prospects (p. 206-207). At least 82 accounts of the earthquake were published in 1906 alone. On the other hand, John Spreckles, the owner of the San Francisco Call newspaper wrote an editorial in which he is quoted as saying:
“The whole world is familiar with our calamity, but is it necessary to harp on the subject after it is all over? Why not forget it as soon as possible…If we want to frighten people away from us this is about as good a way as any other” (p. 26).
Their catastrophe was not something that San Francisco businessmen wanted to share with the world. This was not the first seismic activity in San Francisco caused by movement in the San Andreas Fault. However, the commercial community blamed the 1906 earthquake damage on the fires that erupted as a result of the earthquake and then launched into a campaign of disinformation. The newspapers attempted to downplay and normalize the event. They reminded their readers that they must rebuild and “not let earthquakes get in the way.” The San Francisco Real Estate Board met a week after the quake and agreed that “the calamity should be spoken of as ‘the great fire’ and not as ‘the great earthquake’” (p. 30-32). Senator Francis Newlands (D-Nevada) played a critical role in securing federal aid in the amount of $2 million dollars for the city. The Senator had a major financial stake in development in the area. He stated that the earthquake was “just a little shake in the earth’s crust” and fire was the cause of most of the damage (p. 33).
Some of the scientific community, however, disputed that interpretation. John Branner of Stanford University wrote that there was scant information on the earthquake due to the efforts of the commercial community’s “deliberate suppression of news about earthquakes” in order not to hurt business (p. 33). The only other parties seeking a full explanation seemed to be the insurance companies. However, since earthquake damage was not covered and fire damage was, it was in the interest of the policyholders to claim fire damage.
Steinberg argues that when the “powers” in disaster-stricken cities seek to normalize calamity and to restore property values and the economy, they put an emphasis on “chaotic nature” and not on human economic forces. Economic forces in this country have influenced not only local disaster responses but the entire federal strategy as well. “Natural disasters are not simply technical matters in need of more and better engineering; they are at their core sociopolitical issues” (p. xx).
In the past, seeing floods, earthquakes, and storms as signs of God’s displeasure was one of the oldest ways of explaining such events. In 19th century America, natural disasters were heavily laden with moral meaning (p. xxi). According to recent polls, about twenty percent of Americans currently “derive moral lessons from extremes of nature.” (p. xxii) Today in the United States, the government provides money to repair public facilities, funds emergency housing and offers loans. Steinberg posits that for the most part, “these changes help to underwrite increasing development in hazardous areas.” (p. xxii) He feels that disasters are no longer acute local problems; instead the risk of living in a seismic area, for instance, can now be amortized to taxpayers across the country. “When the risk of disaster was detached from the space in which it occurred, it became much harder to point the finger of blame.” (p. xxii) Steinberg continues that as a result, “Ethical responsibility, not to mention ecological literacy, suffered in a world where everyone and thus no one bore the cost of residing in a hazard zone.” (p. xxii)
Steinberg argues that the hardest hit areas in the United States are generally those lower down the socioeconomic ladder, those who live in mobile home parks and other lower-income neighborhoods. The approach taken by the media, developers and policymakers is to promote quick repairs and cosmetic solutions to damaged property and thus the fundamental flaws go unheeded and unsafe practices continue unquestioned. Evidence is shown that even today, with increased scientific knowledge, imprudent building continues in seismically active areas and flood-prone littoral plains (p. 1).1
The author’s writing style is provocative and the book well researched and passionate. Steinberg, an avid environmental historian, is obviously a controversial individual with an agenda about which he feels strongly. I agree with his assessment of the current state of mitigation of natural disaster and would strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in disaster management.
A quote from the introduction is most compelling: “The next time the wind kicks up and the earth starts to roar, what will we tell ourselves? Will we rise up in indignation at what nature has done to us? Or will we reflect on our own role as architects of destruction? It is how we answer these questions that will determine the future of calamity.” (p. xxiii)
In tsunami safety, education and mitigation – my field of interest – I believe that now is the time to address Steinberg’s questions. Let us take, for example, the State of Hawaii. The inevitability of a catastrophic tsunami occurring in, whether locally or distantly generated, is unquestioned by scientists and governmental agencies. Since tsunamis are rare occurrences, the attitude seems to be that tourism may be negatively impacted by widespread acknowledgement of tsunami danger and publicity about tsunami evacuation zones. Other states, such as Oregon, also have tourists along their coastlines. However, they have fostered a “culture of preparedness” among the coastal communities similar to that of Japan, according to Onno Husing, Director of the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association.2 Since Hawaii has the advantage of foresight, it must address the issues head-on and seek solutions to the problem, before the next catastrophic tsunami, instead of settling for the status quo and becoming the “architects of destruction” (p. xxiii).
Steinberg has shown a spotlight on a serious topic and exposed a defective system and economic culture that must be addressed. After reading this book one can never again turn a blind eye to the injustices of our social system. We can no longer avoid our duty and blame reoccurring disasters on random acts of nature; rather, we must look into the past and accept moral responsibility for disaster, realizing that disaster is not preordained. As Steinberg states, “Only by coming to grips with the injustices and excesses of our social system can we hope to respond equitably and effectively to events that threaten the stability and integrity of that system” (p. 201).
1. Down to earth. (2002, September). Oxford general catalog [On-line]. Available http://www.oup-usa.org/isbn/0195140095.html (2002, September 14). Griffith, S. (2001).
2. Husing, O. (personal communication, October 7, 2002)
Book Review of:
Hunger and Shame:
Child Malnutrition and Poverty
on Mount Kilimanjaro
By Mary Howard and Ann V. Millard
New York: Routledge, 1997
Reviewed by Lise Martel
In Hunger and Shame, Mary Howard and Ann V. Millard describe the shame associated with child hunger on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Relationships to the colonial history, the social and economic changes faced by the Chagga people, and their recent involvement in the global economy are explored through Howard’s prolonged and repeated ethnographic experiences on the mountain as a researcher for the Nutrition Rehabilitation Unit (NURU). The Unit was a twenty-year intervention funded privately and staffed by doctors from the United States and Europe. NURU’s main goal was to learn about the causes of malnutrition on Mount Kilimanjaro and to solve the problem of child malnutrition through the nutritional education of Chagga mothers.
The book gives a comprehensive description of the role that foreign institutions have played in the social and economic changes of the Chagga people. The colonial powers converted their traditional society into a cash economy. It transformed their self-sufficient diversified agricultural structure into the undiversified cultivation of coffee for exportation. Christianity undermined Chagga religious ideas about ancestors, weakened lineage ties, undermined traditional birth control and played a crucial role in decreasing the amount of time between consecutive births. As a result, population tripled between 1950 and 1990, leaving most of the Chagga people landless, jobless and hungry. The erosion of the authority of the traditional patrilineage that came with colonization also upset the balance between rich and poor by replacing the obligation to kin by the individualistic idea of deserved shame and salvation.
The story of the women with whom Howard interacted is convincingly presented through a rich blend of field notes, recollections, diary entries, dialogues and stories. Women suffered greatly from the social and economic changes which started with the first colonization efforts of Germany in the late nineteenth century. The capitalist system took away women’s traditional economic independence and brought them under the subordination of men. Illegal distilling of alcohol became a common practice for many poor women trying to feed their starving children, sometimes at the cost of imprisonment.
The historical information provided by Howard enables the reader to understand why the Chagga people resisted the help offered by NURU. They saw it as another symbol of the socialist system that was unsuccessfully implemented by Tanzania’s president, Niyerere, in the 1960s. The system collapsed in the mid-1970s. To make matters worse, NURU added to the Chagga mistrust by wrongly assuming that poor planning and ignorance were the main cause of child malnutrition and that the problem could be solved with the proper education of mothers. NURU failed to recognize the overwhelming effect of factors such as lack of resources, land and work, population growth, and the clash of values between the traditional and the colonial way of life. Furthermore, despite its allegiance to cultural sensitivity, NURU also failed to recognize the stigma and shame their service would bring to the life of the women they served.
Through the use of historical facts, vivid recollections and retrospective reflection, the authors easily convince the reader that, sadly enough, the NURU staff, the better-off Chagga kin and the government officials’ best intentions only had short-term beneficial effects. In the long run, all three groups of people served to shame impoverished people for their misfortune and divert attention from the real causes of poverty and child malnutrition on Mount Kilimanjaro.
Hunger and Shame is divided into ten chapters. Endnotes supplement each chapter. The endnotes provide interesting background information, and useful explanations for cultural actions that might have puzzled the reader and were not explained in detail in the narrative. The endnotes also include quotes and provide useful references for people interested in furthering their knowledge on the subject. The book ends with appendices of demographic information, a glossary of Swahili words and expressions, as well as an extensive bibliography.
Despite its sound structure, Hunger and Shame has a few organizational shortcomings. Even though the narrative is divided into chapters, topics are often revisited, and stories and examples are sometimes retold with only a slight change in emphasis. The book lacks a logical or chronological order of events. Historical facts are inserted throughout the narrative in a non-sequential manner. Still, attentive readers will be able to make sense of the succession of events by paying close attention to the numerous dates provided by the authors in the narrative and in paragraph headers.
Regardless of its few shortcomings, and even if, as many other similar stories, it leaves the reader with lingering feelings of tragedy and hopelessness, Hunger and Shame stands out amidst other ethnographic narratives. What sets it apart from other books is the candor of its main author, Mary Howard. Howard does not hesitate to share with us personal experiences that demonstrate her initial naivety and lack of understanding of the Chagga culture of Mount Kilimanjaro. She openly acknowledges her own as well as other outsiders’ mistakes and shortcomings without trying to excuse them. The book definitely reaches the authors’ goal to contribute “to the effort to understand child malnutrition on Mt. Kilimanjaro in terms that are realistic instead of romanticized.” (XV) But, most importantly, the book goes beyond the original intent of its authors by triggering many questions of ethics and morality in reference to the complexity of humanitarian interventions initiated and developed by helping nations lacking the profound cultural understanding necessary to make a meaningful contribution to the betterment of the life of poor people around the world.
Hunger and Shame is a must read for those involved in humanitarian work. It is also important for university students interested in the fields of social, community, cultural and cross-cultural psychology as well as social work and anthropology. Its use of lay language makes it adequate for undergraduate classes. Yet, the complex issues it raises would definitely be great topics for rich discussions in graduate seminars in the fields mentioned above.
Book Review of:
Origins of Terrorism:
Theologies, States of Mind
Edited by Walter Reich,
Forward by Walter Laquer
Woodrow Wilson Center, 1998
Reviewed by Dawn Nekorchuk
Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind investigates the complex and diverse issues surrounding the causes of terrorism. This compilation of essays, edited by Walter Reich, was created to describe the psychology (broadly defined) of terrorism. A reading is well worth the time invested for researchers in terrorism, especially in political violence, however a decent grasp of psychological principles and recent world history and terrorism is highly advised.
Broken into five sections, the book covers: i) Strategy or psychology?: Origins of terrorist behavior , ii) Varieties of terrorism: Ideological and religious motivations, iii) States of mind: How do terrorists think? Which psychological mechanisms enable them to do what they do?, iv) Responding to Terrorism: Decision making and the pressures on leadership and v) The psychology of terrorism: What can we know? What must we learn?
Each part contains essays by different authors, illuminating specific cases and examples. The first section, comprised of two essays, articulates the debate between terrorism being a logical, strategic choice versus a product of psychological forces. The first chapter by Crenshaw argues that terrorist behavior can be the rational and logical choice made by individuals and groups as they examine their potential avenues of action. The second chapter by Post argues the opposite: motivations lie in the psychological realm. Each author believes that both modes of thought must be considered, but at the request of the editor, wrote from one side. This balance reminds the reader that though psychology is mostly discussed in the rest of the book, other
factors in the origins of terrorism need to be considered.
The second section examines several terrorist groups and activities, focusing on their ideological and religious motivations. For a well-rounded approach, all essays in this section are useful, however readers may prefer to skip to the examples and topics that hold the most interest. Ferracuti describes not only leftist terrorism in Italy, but also the strategies used to draw individuals away from terrorism and why these worked. Sprinzak focuses on the Weathermen in the United States and the history and process by which a peace organization evolved into a terrorist group. Islam is also discussed in other chapters of this section.
The third section investigates the psychological mechanisms that factor into a person’s decision to become a terrorist and how they function as a terrorist. I perceive this section to be the strength of this book. Chapter 9 is both the longest essay and the best of the section, if not the entire book. This chapter, entitled “Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement” by Bandura delves deeply into the psychological processes and mechanisms that can allow a person to commit terrorist attacks, deal with the consequences of those actions, and their perceptions of the victims.
The fourth section covers government and official responses to terrorism. The likely responses to terrorism are perhaps important as to the reasons why terrorist actions are taken, or not. However, this section was tangential to explaining the origins of terrorism. The two essays focus on hostage taking, specifically the events that occurred during the Carter and Reagan terms, and how these U.S. Presidents re-sponded to the situation. Chapter 11 also discussed ways of reducing the stress for the president in hostage taking situations, which, although interesting, does not contribute to the purpose of the book.
The fifth section includes questions and future directions for the role of psychology in understanding and preventing terrorism. Crenshaw appropriately leaves far more questions than answers and suggests directions for future research. The final chapter by Reich concludes the book with a warning on the limits of psychology in describing terrorism, but also highlights its potential.
Published in 1998, these essays were written well before the events of 9/11, a key reason for my choice to read it. It seemed much useless hysteria was published in the aftermath of that event, and I suspected there was value to be gleaned from some of the viewpoints and reasoning on terrorism before then. The information it contains seems just as relevant post-9/11, though I think the emphasis on hostage taking could easily be replaced by suicidal or holy terrorism.
In fact, Merari’s essay states that suicidal terrorism is actually quite rare, which is quite likely still true, but I think many now hold the opposite belief. Merari also concludes that suicidal terrorism is more of an individual choice than a group-driven one. I would be curious what he would write and how Reich would recreate this book today.
Background knowledge of world political and terrorism history of the last half-century, as well as some psychology principles, are needed to take full advantage of this book. However, for serious scholars of terrorism, it is a wonderful resource in its broad coverage of factors from many disciplines that play a role in the origins of terrorism.
Book Review of:
Another Day in Paradise:
Workers Tell Their Stories
Edited by Carol Bergman
Orbis Books: New York, 2003
Reviewed by Victoria Hart & Roy Brennen
And so I confess that I haven’t been able to abandon entirely my romantic notions of humanitarian work, though they have been tempered by the gritty, real-time stories…” states editor Carol Bergman in the last pages of this anthology. Another Day in Paradise is a varied set of humanitarian work essays, many of which are stilted by melodrama or are overly romanticized, but there are some enjoyable gems to be found. Unfortunately, the stories themselves have been showcased with a saccharine preface. Introductions for each section are vague and do not highlight salient issues or provide informative, theoretical backdrops to complement the stories. Ms. Bergman writes that she “had to develop a callus—like the workers themselves—in order to read the stories day after day.” A reader might feel the same way about her editorial comments.
Another Day In Paradise is divided into three parts: Natural Disasters, War, and Fragile Peace. Each section starts with an introduction provided by the editor. Yet the themes found among essays in different sections overlap enough such that the vague, brief introductions to each section don’t really give a good sense of each section’s significance. The collection of stories would be better served by allowing the reader to categorize the stories instead of attempting to force them into arbitrary categories. The editor’s decision to divide the work into three parts seems ill chosen. If the anthology were about humanitarian aid and not humanitarian aid workers, the division would appear less academic. Many would, and can at length, argue that “Fragile Peace” does not yet exist in areas like Afghanistan or the Occupied Territories. The point can also be made that when a re-occurring event, such as a drought, ravages a poor population, is it a question of politics, policy, or nature?
Sentimentality is not just limited to comments by the editor, but also Mr. John Le Carre who supplied the foreword. He states that the “truth is another country – the one that is inhabited by those brave enough to visit life’s hells on foot instead of on the television screen.” Field experience offers excellent insight, but one has to be wary of sole truths taken from individuals who may be too close to the trees to see the forest. Just because an individual has been to an area does not make him or her an expert, regardless of heroic intent. Mr. Le Carre also requests the reader to “never confuse them [humanitarian aid workers], please, with those other so-called relief workers who, thank heaven, aren’t represented here at all and shouldn’t be: the institutionalized functionaries of global disaster.” If this plea is honest and accurate, then the editor should be more circumspect of the submissions received.
The anthology’s strongest point is its human-interest flavor, as each personal account provides a glimpse into the life of someone performing a unique and challenging job under difficult conditions. However, because the book draws on fifteen different contributors, the tone and quality of the stories vary a great deal. A good example of the degrees of difference can be found between the only two essays that were written about the same location: Afghanistan. Deerenberg’s essay “What is Beautiful” hits the reader as a highly romanticized account of the author’s perspective of and experience in Afghanistan. While many essays detail personal involvement to enhance the reader’s understanding, Deerenberg’s sharing of her love interests and sentimental reflections of the stark beauty of the place leave us with a Vaseline-coated view of her time there without a lot of insight into what impact, if any, her work had. On the other hand, Sifton’s “Out of Time” offers an essay that dares to include some of the author’s own political perspective on the situation he worked in.
In general, any political critique in the book comes across as daring, because although this anthology is about overtly politicized work, many of the authors’ essays and the editor’s introductions are ironically lacking in substantive commentary on the political nature of the work. Sifton writes from a personal perspective that also provides a critique, sketching a larger view of the context he’s working in, and his role in it. Another striking account that successfully highlights the issue of personal involvement is Nguyen’s essay on her work in Vietnam. Working to relieve flooding, Nguyen discusses how being Vietnamese-American affects Vietnamese perceptions of her and the impact this has on her work. She is honest about her own insecurity regarding her perceived identity, and informs us of how her image as both an outsider and insider in Vietnam affect the dynamics of the flood relief work she is trying to perform.
One essay-writing approach that backfires for a few authors is focusing on one particularly dramatic episode of their complete experience, to the exclusion of their role as aid workers. Hostage crises and armed conflict are certainly the stuff of high drama. However, essays revolving around a singularly dramatic incident do not leave a meaningful impression simply by having the wildest war story, without also providing a larger context of the significance of their presence. One exception that was able to successfully include this sort of drama was Dillon’s “My Bodyguard.” While not focused around any one incident, Dillon’s essay featuring his 10-year-old Somalian bodyguard blended drama and personal tragedy with a deeper sense of how it affected the author beyond simply being a bystander in a uniquely dramatic situation. Against the backdrop of his adjustment to his daily life in Somalia, Dillon unfolded a story of a developing relationship with his young armed guard. His storytelling also enabled the reader to understand how such an absurdly inappropriate job for a child had a logic in that time and place, and how it related to Dillon’s work and presence there.
As opposed to high drama or spectacular incidents, Heslop’s journal-style essay “Letters Home” gives a picture of his day-to-day life clearing landmines in Angola. The reader comes away with a grasp of the nature and import of his work, as well as the attitude necessary to perform it. This look at daily life imparts us with a personal, yet informative, glimpse of his aid work, regardless of whether it was dealing with illness or international celebrities.
Overall, the anthology is an excellent window onto how humanitarian aid workers want to be perceived, but less so of the work that they do. Each author has her or his own story that they feel is worth relating. That the telling may be more meaningful to them than to the reader shouldn’t detract from the enjoyment of the story nor what can be learned about life under difficult conditions. To gain a larger view of the daily world as a humanitarian aid worker might see it, you should read Another Day in Paradise, but skip the editorial comments, pick an essay that looks interesting at the time, and formulate your own opinion.
Book Review of:
Emergency Relief Operations
Edited by Kevin M. Cahill, MD
New York: Fordham
University Press, 2003
Reviewed by David Vinjamuri
At the end of the classic 1960 film “The Time Machine” friends of the scientist who has built a time machine and left for the future confront his bookshelf which is missing three volumes and wonder which books they would take to rebuild a world.
Until the publication of Emergency Relief Operations, the question of how to prepare to be posted to an overseas disaster area for the first time was no simpler. A variety of publications have addressed the academic, professional or policy-making community but none were designed as a primer on the basic issues confronting the people on the ground.
Cahill and the Center for International Health and Cooperation are to be commended for taking on this broad and complex topic and doing so in a manner addressed not just to the experienced academic, but to the layperson as well. Indeed, this book and the companion volume Basics of Humanitarian Missions (to be reviewed in the next issue of The Liaison) are the first two in a new series of practical primers, which will later address such issues as epidemics, natural disasters and civil strife.
When this volume succeeds, it does so brilliantly, as with articles by Major General Timothy Cross, Judy Benjamin and Tom Arnold. I would not recommend reading sequentially, however, as the two articles least well written to the core audience appear at the front of the volume.
“Early Warning Systems” by Ted Gurr and Barbara Harff offers a validated theoretical model to assess which global potential problem areas will develop into real humanitarian crises requiring emergency relief. This is a laudable goal and the authors develop their arguments carefully. The article is written as an argument, however, and is more suited to a purely academic audience than a professional one. The authors seemed to have confused the pedagogical mission of the book with a more political one – support for further research on early warning systems – which is valid but beside the point when one is writing a basic primer.
The second article, “Initial Responses to Complex Emergencies and Natural Disasters” by Ed Tsui seems to be written to high-level policy makers who are the only ones in a position to effect the kinds of structural changes that Tsui convincingly argues are necessary to approach these crises properly prepared. While his points are all valid, reading this article from the standpoint of a new UNDP or CARE employee preparing for field deployment might bring on feelings of powerlessness and despair that are contrary to the volume’s greater purpose.
Most of Emergency Relief Operations is filled with gems, however: bright shining jewels of concise, practical, usable advice. Tom Arnold focuses narrowly on water and sanitation and devotes a significant section to excreta disposal, describing in lucid detail the proper construction use and maintenance of sanitary facilities. The brilliance here – both of Arnold and Cahill for including the article – is realizing that what is so obvious to anyone who has been in an aid camp (or a field military encampment for that matter) may not be obvious at all to the novice. A simple mistake like locating the latrines too close to a freshwater source may condemn thousands to dysentery.
It is in sections like this that the book shines, when it is offering practical advice to those who need it and revealing obvious issues that might not be clear to well educated policy generalists dealing with relief operations for the first time. Left at this level the volume would achieve its mission – as a useful primer for those who need to learn about the management of emergency relief operations. Several articles go further and make Emergency Relief Operations a true classic.
Chief among these is Major General Timothy Cross’s contribution, “Military/NGO Interaction.” Cross calmly and methodically crosses the minefield of relationships between professional warriors whose chief concerns are security and stability and NGO workers primarily concerned with health and quality of life. He openly discusses military prejudices towards aid workers and explains the underlying value systems of the two groups and how they lead inevitably to conflicting goals. Cross does not pull his punches when critiquing either the military or aid workers:
“While bringing tremendous expertise and strengths to bear in their particular fields, several NGOs struck me as being very narrowly focused. A lack of understanding or acceptance of wider issues can (and did) come across as arrogance: indeed, in one or two cases as a dogmatic selfishness to their own aims/needs to the detriments of others. Not being comfortable with pragmatism, there is a constant fear of losing their integrity. They are very cagey about being manipulated by any side ...”
It is exceptional is that Cross clearly gives the future aid worker a view from the other side while at the same time acknowledging the valid fears and pressures that lead to this problem. Aid workers cannot complete their mission without the support of the military, but the military mission may conflict with theirs. Giving a new NGO employee the chance to think through these kinds of issues and discuss them with others in her organization prior to deployment is the key contribution of this volume to the literature.
The strongest law operating in international affairs in general is that of unintended consequences. One of the best articles in the book directly addresses this issue as it relates to women and power; Judy Benjamin describes how otherwise functional arrangements for food, water and sanitation can create disastrous conditions for women:
“Because of severe water shortages, women at the Ngara, Tanzania, refugee camps stood in line for hours both before dawn and after dark. Many were attacked or forced to provide sex in exchange for water. At the same camp, young girls were raped when they visited the latrines. The incidents were so frequent that the design and location of latrines was changed from large communal areas to small, four-family latrines located nearer residences.”
Benjamin urges NGO workers not to accept the status quo of “cultural differences” when dealing with basic human rights and points to UNHCR guidelines that clearly show where dangerous discriminatory practices need to be curbed. None of this may be at first visible to a new humanitarian or emergency relief operative posted to a camp in a developing country for the first time, so Benjamin’s contribution here is inestimable.
Emergency Relief Operations more than succeeds at its task and is a welcome addition to the literature. It will undoubtedly become a standard teaching text as several other of Cahill’s works already are. More importantly, he has significantly contributed to the professional literature in this field. Packing your bags to go to Africa, Iraq or the Balkans for the first time will always be difficult. Now, at least, the reading list will be shorter.